Saturday, October 13, 2007

"I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient and humble servant"

8 October 2007

Ismail Ali Ismail

Those persons of my generation who were finishing school at the time the sun was setting on the British Empire and were contemplating their future as the wind of change was blowing through the length and breadth of Africa will remember, with nostalgia, (like the generations before them who actually served the Empire) the beautiful words with which colonial officialdom used to end its correspondence with members of the public: “I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient and humble servant.” The beauty of these words lies in the fact of a colonial officer admitting, without qualms, his being a servant of the public.

The irony of it, however, is that British colonial officers were masters, not ‘servants’. Nor were they ‘humble’, let alone being ‘obedient’. They were in fact snobbish, overbearing - even openly racist – and obviously hypocritical in adding that sentence as a subscript to their replies to petitioners. The British saw their colonialism as a vehicle for civilizing ‘inferior races’ in the ‘dark countries’, and it was one of their imperialist pioneers, Cecil Rhodes, who called for the African continent to be colonized “from the Cape to the Canal”; and so it became “the most universally colonial continent”, though not colonized entirely by the British. Rhodes also said: “ Have you ever thought how lucky you are to have been born an Englishman”. By ‘dark countries’ they did not mean only Africa but also other areas where the people were of a skin darker than white and, not coincidentally from the racist point of view, also in the dark about development. A latter-day proconsul actually relates how his own father, a country parson, inculcated in him a feeling of superiority to the people he ruled. In trying to explain what that superiority meant the father told him: “It’s whatever it is that makes a million Indians in a district accept the authority of a single Englishman, who has nothing more than a handful of police at his back.” British racism in India was indeed the subject of an old film called, ‘Passage to India’. Though Europeans in general benefited a lot from the Arab civilization T.E. Lawrence (better known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’) writes in his “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”: “ I am proudest of my thirty fights in that I did not have any of our own blood shed. All our subject provinces to me were not worth one dead Englishman”. That of course is a racist statement. But, a lot of Arab blood was spilt to ‘free’ Arabs from the Turks only to divide them secretly, while they were still fighting, between the British and the French as a result of Sykes-Picot Agreement. How typical of the Perfidious Albion!

Doubtless from the British officials point of view “I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient and humble servant” was a polite statement which was perfunctory and did not really mean what it said. But those members of the public who also used it in their supplications to them really meant it. This reminds me of a little story which a friend told me about a short military training he had undergone in Aldershot (U.K.). The drill sergeant told him: “You call me ‘Sir’ and I call you ‘Sir’; you mean it and I don’t”. It is also related that in Hargeisa the colonial director of medical services chanced upon a Somali dresser one early morning in one of the Group Hospital’s corridors and greeted him with the words, “Good morning, Sir”. The poor dresser, visibly perturbed by being addressed as ‘Sir’ by the superior of his superiors, blurted out the words: “Good morning Sir; I am not your Sir, Sir; you are my Sir, Sir”.

But, we should not really blame the British; it is human to think when you are so successful or so far ahead of the others that you are innately superior to them. Others, before them (Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabs) had all been too arrogant, racist and condescending in the heydays of their respective civilizations towards less fortunate peoples; and there has not been a colonial power which considered itself on equal footing with its subjects – not even under some colonial policies of assimilation. In the glare of historical lessons one has to be blind not to see that imperial power and hubris are two sides of a coin. The British felt understandably superior at a time they were ruling much of the world in terms of land mass and population (40% of the World Population) and they took pride in the fact that the sun never set on the British Empire. Britain was then a great power deserving its title as ‘The Mistress of the Seas’. But there was resentment of course, and when that illustrious son of India, Krishna Menon, was vexatiously reminded that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”, he retorted, “ It is so because God could not trust the British in the dark”.

However, in the natural scheme of things empires, like all else, rise and fall and the British Empire is no more. British power and influence in the world have waned and the kingdom is now, by its own admission, but a second-rate power. Writing eloquently in the mid-sixties on this transformation the late Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham) described Britain as “a bothered and painted matron with a middle-aged spread, clearly worried about her housekeeping, unable to employ domestic staff and harassed by her grow-up children.” The ‘grown-up children’ are none other than the dependencies that became independent.

Colonialism, lasting a century on the average, has been inevitably a vehicle for cultural diffusion (with cultural imperialism as a byproduct) and as such has brought countries together - even created them. Nowhere is this more true than in Africa where by dint of historical association we have been divided into Anglophones, Francophones and Lusophones. And of course we have on the larger world stage the Commonwealth and the Francophonie both of which bring together countries that share a common colonial heritage. We have learnt a lot from colonial administrations, both good and bad – including some mannerisms and some habits of mind.

I was told decades ago of an African district commissioner who having stepped into the shoes of his British predecessor insisted on speaking English to his own people through an interpreter just like the white man he had replaced. He thought that ‘coming down to the level of the people’ would be demeaning to his personality and position. In all fairness, however, we cannot blame such obtuse behavior on British education and training. Unlike the policies of some other colonial powers in Africa, British colonial policy was in fact so enlightened that it required expatriate officers to learn to speak and write the local language. Examinations were held and those who did not pass had their annual increments withheld and their promotions kept in abeyance. But, in failing to emulate their senior officers junior officers have tended to mimic or copy them – and sometimes they copied very badly. It was even said that there was a junior clerk from India who so imbibed the hackneyed and insipid style of routine correspondence that he sent the following letter to his supervisor who had just got married in London while on leave:

“Dear Sir,

With reference to your marriage of recent date I wish to congratulate you most heartily and I hope that God will give you a son at his earliest opportunity.

I have the honour to be, Sir, your
most obedient and humble servant.”

To be honest, I am not sure whether the story about this blasphemous letter was genuine or apocryphal, but it is one of the humorous anecdotes we have from British India. It underscores non the less the grim reality of bureaucratic life that a person created to think for himself can be so absurdly mechanical and so astonishingly robotic.
However, the British bequeathed to India at the time they were leaving in 1947 a world-class civil service (the ICS) which even used to supply trained manpower to other British possessions and was second to none in terms of excellence.

But the situation in Somaliland Protectorate was entirely different, for there was always a dearth of sufficiently educated and trained Somali staff to fill even the lower echelons of the service: Indians had to be brought in. The educational attainment of the Protectorate was so hopeless that even most of the few Somalis who were employed in the clerical profession had come from Aden. Even when two friends of mine and I joined the service in Hargeisa on 4 September, 1960, having finished secondary school in Aden, there was not a single Somali civil servant who had a secondary school certificate including the officers themselves, some of whom were heads of departments. The officers owed their exalted positions to their longevity in the service, seniority of grade, attendance of short courses in the U.K., and the fact that they were the best ones available to fill the shoes of departing British officials. We were deployed to different departments and assigned to clerical positions because we were considered to be too green: too young and too inexperienced. We ourselves did not mind since we were not hunting for positions: interested only in higher education, we were looking for scholarships abroad in parity with the graduates of Sheikh Secondary School (then the only one in the former Protectorate) who were receiving scholarships upon graduation and were not absorbed into the service. But, on our part we appreciated the fact that the officers were struggling hard to cope with new national roles they had not been prepared for and they often took refuge in routine correspondence and rule application. In any case, that beautiful subscript “I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient and humble servant” remained alive and well.

However, the matter did not end there as the heads of departments were transferred to Mogadishu to fill the top positions in the ministries as well as ambassadorial and other diplomatic posts with the result that key positions in the northern region fell to second and third class officers. Independence brought in fresh and daunting challenges for which our civil services in both the North and South were not equipped. In the South there was no excuse as the Italians had a lead of ten years to prepare them. Until 1964 we in fact had two parallel services with two completely different systems and orientations which often caused frictions and accidents of personality. Still, when their integration was adopted that year it took some time for the two to merge properly. The process was not unlike the merger of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, for if you look down from the bridge over their confluence in Khartoum you can see the two waters with their recognizable colors running side by side for quite a distance until they fully mix to form a single river flowing in full spate.

Regrettably, one of the first casualties of Independence was the sentence “I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient and humble servant” which disappeared from official correspondence with the public, not only in Somalia but also in other Anglophone countries in Africa. Concern about this regrettable lapse was expressed so often in our annual meetings of the African Association of Public Administration and Management (AAPAM) – meetings that brought together academics, practitioners (including Heads of Public Services), international experts and politicians (particularly ministers in charge of the civil services and their reform).

But, was the discussion of one simple sentence in official correspondence much ado about nothing? No. What prompted the discussion every time was the feeling that the public services have lost a sense of serving the community – a sense of being the servants of those who pay their salaries, namely the tax-payers. It was recognized that that simple sentence was pregnant with a lot of meaning: it actually gave meaning to such concepts as responsibility, responsiveness, ethics, accountability and of course democratic control. It raised consciousness of these principles and imbued the service with a sense of duty. It is quite reassuring to see officials taking pride (‘I have the honour’) in being the ‘servants’ of the public and showing in all humility (‘humble’) responsiveness (‘most obedient’) to their needs.

It has been said that the patience of the Chinese is proverbial. We Somalis are poor in this regard, for patience is not one of our attributes. Nations and institutions take a long time to build, and patience and perseverance are the two essential ingredients. We have come a long way from the sixties and we now have highly educated and qualified people though most of them are outside the country. Without them the country cannot be built. It is for them that I wrote this piece and I hope they will not shun their duty to their country and will help in building a robust public service which will be guided by, “I have the honour to be, Sir/Madam, your most obedient and humble servant”. Undoubtedly, an equally beautiful formulation of its equivalent in Somali can be found.

I have been embarrassed many times by the question why I was not helping my country instead of working for the United Nations. I am sure every educated Somali faces the same question and shares the embarrassment.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Homily of A Devil's Advocate: A Response to Bashir Goth


Ismail Ali Ismail
February 19, 2006

Bashir Goth has tried in his article “Cartoons put a great religion to the test” (, 10 February, 2006) to be too clever by half and has in the process laid bare both the bankruptcy of his argument and his malevolence towards Islam and Moslems. The very title of his article is of course offensive to Moslems and is indicative of a schizophrenic-personality approach to treating an important and burning issue: ‘important’ because it has brought to the fore how the West and The Moslem World see each other, and ‘burning’ because it is topical but, literally, too hot an issue to play with. Islam is too great a religion to be tested by idiotic cartoons drawn by an evil person and promoted by the diabolical others who propound a boundless and therefore mindless freedom of expression. The writer would have been probably justified to choose as the title of his article words which would have reflected the view that the cartoons put the tolerance of Moslems to the test. But he chose to drag Islam into his diatribe against Moslems – a diatribe which leaves little doubt that the writer is attacking Islam itself in a roundabout way.
At the outset the writer praises Islam as a religion only to hide his contempt for it which becomes apparent in later passages. The schizophrenia is all the more clearer when he first speaks as a Moslem (e.g. “My brothers and sisters…” and then later” As Muslims we may claim…” and finally, “My fellow Muslims,”) and then in many other passages as a non-Moslem (e.g., “The holy Qur’an is said to be the greatest miracle.” “Muslims believe that….” and “…I find it beyond my understanding why Muslims always drag Jews and the holocaust into…”). In making few quotations from the Qur’an and by dropping few names of Moslem scholars he poses as someone who commands a good knowledge of Islam even though he had been previously exposed and castigated as a mere charlatan. But it seems that he never learnt his lesson. A learned Moslem knows full well that the Qur’an is not only a linguistic miracle but also a continuing miracle in the sense of having revealed scientific facts which Muhammad could not have known on his own but which become apparent with the efflux of time and in the light of scientific discoveries. Any Moslem who has familiarized himself with the life history (Sierah) of the Prophet would acknowledge the many miracles which the contemporaries and disciples of the Prophet witnessed on a day-by-day basis and attested to.

Bashir Goth states by implication ,and rightly so, (we have to give the devil his due) that we should have, in reacting to those evil cartoons, shown patience and restraint as the Prophet did when he himself suffered the indignities which were heaped upon him by his own kith and kin. Islam enjoins patience and forbearance upon us in the face of adversity and we have been told to emulate the Prophet whose character was moulded by the Almighty as the best example to follow. But to us ordinary freaks his character is inimitable. We are neither prophets nor saints. Prophets are of a different mould. When A’isha was asked about the character of the Prophet she replied that “ His character was the Qur’an”; and the Almighty has also told us in the Qur’an to exercise patience. In Aal Imran (verse 133) we are told that “righteous” are “Those who spend (freely) whether in prosperity or in adversity; who restrain their anger and pardon all people; for Allah loves those who do good”. In Ashoura (verse No. 37) it is stated: “Those who avoid the greater sins and indecencies; and when they are angry even they forgive.” Certainly therefore we have been told to suppress our rage.

Christians have similarly been told to “turn the other cheek”. But, do they? And we have all been told by our respective religions not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to bear false witness, etc. But do we, as human beings, follow these instructions? I think the answer is obvious. But, Bashir Goth needs to learn something about human nature and should see Moslems as ordinary human beings who commit transgressions and crimes like everyone else, who fight each other in their own countries and even set mosques on fire just as Christians do to their churches. Admittedly, some of these heinous acts are committed in the names of religion. But to blame these acts or the maledictions of some priests on a particular religion can only be an attempt to turn that religion on its head. The prophets are long gone and saints, if any such there are, are few. Therefore to single out Moslems and castigate them for expressing their rage in a very graphic manner while extolling what the writer sees as the “virtues” of the West is glaringly prejudicial. It is a mark of our times that virtues have been turned into vices and vices into virtues and some of us see this as modernization. A philosopher once said: “Man is a moral amphibian; he has a higher nobler nature, and he has a lower animal nature.” Bashir Goth can see Moslems only in their lower animal nature while he sees the West in its higher nobler nature. I do not wish to follow his suit by excoriating the followers of other religions - or the West for that matter – in order to show him the historical facts of their vile deeds. I should now like to answer some of his other statements which are at once startling and revealing.

He states: “… the Danish people have the right to behave the way they want to behave on their own turf.” If we apply the logic of his statement to Moslems behaving as they wish in their own countries would it not justify the kind of behaviour he is condemning in Moslems? Elsewhere, he says: “There is no doubt that the extremist groups that have hijacked Islam long ago have also hijacked the cartoon crisis.” First, Islam has not been hijacked, for it is still there. Secondly, to call criminal elements as “Moslem extremists” is an affront to Islam - a religion of peace which does not condone the killing of innocent people, wonton destruction of property, and burning of flags. As to his statement that Moslems lack the virtue of self-criticism which the West is “ blessed with” Bshir Goth will best be advised to educate himself and read the various books and listen to series of lectures which Moslem scholars give on the Iqr’a satellite channel and even on Aljazeerah in order to see the virtuous Moslems who denounce day and night the violence that has taken place, the killing of innocent people, the burning or destruction of embassies, beheadings and threatening diplomats who are accredited to and are guests of their countries. Many Moslems have condemned in the strongest possible terms the attack on the Twin Towers, but those who want to paint Islam as a religion of mindless and indiscriminate violence will cite, like Bashir Goth, the work of some rotten apples (who also kill Moslems) as an example of virtuous Moslem religiosity. And if Bashir Goth finds it beyond his comprehension “why Muslims always drag Jews and the holocaust into the agenda whenever they have a debate with the Christian world” it is only because he wants to convey a distorted picture of Islam. I do not know if and where Moslems and Christians sat together and discussed bilateral issues. But Moslems have recently pointed to the duplicity of the West which made it criminal to deny the holocaust but would not do the same for blatant and willful characterization of their holy prophet on flimsy grounds of freedom of expression. Nowhere in the world is the freedom of expression unlimited; otherwise, law as an instrument of social control would be redundant and there would be no place for laws of slander and libel. So to say to Moslem that any person is free to offend them and insult their prophet in the name of freedom of expression is foolish, irresponsible and contemptuous of the inevitably ugly consequences.

But Bashir Goth says many other things which show further his contempt for Moslems and Arabs. It is evident that he harbors a grudge against the Arabs whatever the reason may be, for he says out of the blue that they had a ‘big hand’ in the slave trade and he wonders, symptomatically, “what the life of the Arab people in the petro-dollar Gulf countries would have been today without the West exploring and bringing out oil and gas for them”. It is ludicrous to suggest that the West was so altruistic that they prospected for oil in the Middle East out of love for the Arabs. Bashir Goth should ask himself, instead, what the state of Western industry and civilization would have been like without the oil of the Middle East, and why the West is so prepared to protect this vital resource with its own blood. Furthermore, he scoffs at Moslems drawing satisfaction from seeing new converts to Islam; for he says: “It is not uncommon to read reports in newspapers from Arab and Islamic world on Islam spreading in the West like a fire on a windy day. They talk with glee about European women converting to Islam in their hoards. In fact most of such reports come from Muslims living in the West. With such vitriol rhetoric and with the stereotype of the few Europeans converted to Islam turning their back on the norms and values of their home countries, changing their attire and adopting an alien look and attitude, it is just natural for the Western people to feel their values and their free speech were under threat”. These words surely cannot be the words of a Muslim as they are, plainly and simply, an attack, not only on Moslems who pride themselves on the swelling of their ranks but also a blatant and unwarranted denunciation of those westerners who convert to Islam. Incidentally, reports of such conversions originate with the western media: in fact I read about them in The Economist and the BBC website.

As if given a monopoly of the truth and as though he just discovered it Bashir Goth states: “My brothers and sisters, truth hurts and I am hell bound today than any time before to tell the truth.” Well, by letting us read the truth between the lines he has revealed to us his true colors and his true faith; for that we should perhaps be grateful . And he says he is hell-bound. I personally would not want to go in that direction.

Ismail Ali Ismail

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Copyright © 2005

Somalia And Ethiopia: Missed Opportunities And Some Challenges

Ismail Ali Ismail
July 06, 2005

Prior to the colonial era the history of the Horn of Africa was, for the most part, a struggle between Islam and Christianity with their adherents trying from time to time to overrun and vanquish each other. With the advent of European colonialism religion continued to play a large part in geopolitical calculations. I remember listening to an interview the BBC Somali Service had with a Somali who was a contemporary of Sylvia Pankhurst and knew her. He said in the interview that, astonished by the ferocity of her campaign to have Somalia ceded to Ethiopia he asked her why she was so ardently supporting Ethiopians against Somalis who were both, being Africans, equally foreign to her. Her answer surprised him because she told him that as a Christian it was incumbent upon her to support her coreligionists against Moslems. As with individuals so it was – then as now – with countries, and the foreign policies of the great powers have never been free, to this date, from religious considerations, (despite what they have been saying) as a result of which Ethiopia was aggrandized at the expense of Somalia.

Dame Margery Perham (then Oxford's foremost authority on colonial administration) says in her book “ The Colonial Reckoning ” that the long frontier between Ethiopia and Somalia was “envenomed” and she cited this as one of the main reasons besides extreme poverty and ‘backwardness' why Somalia would not be able to make much progress – indeed any progress – in its struggle to achieve economic advance. But she stopped short of stating the plain fact that it was her own country, Britain, capitalizing on Ethiopia's insatiable hunger for territory and encouraged by our as-yet-unawakened national consciousness, that injected the venom into those frontier disputes – a venom which has since been running deep in the veins of both Somalis and Ethiopians but which seems now to be wearing off, thanks to certain cataclysmic events in both Ethiopia and Somalia.

The two nations have had, before they arrived at their current cul de sac, their share of follies and foibles leading to serious miscalculations and disappointments in their ceaseless efforts to outmaneuver and outsmart each other. It is these costly miscalculations that I call ‘the missed historical opportunities' and I shall now address myself to them.

Ethiopian Miscalculations

After the thoughtless transfer of the Haud and Reserved Area to Ethiopia the British Government realized its grievous mistake and earnestly worked, ex post facto , towards the retrocession of the Area. Emperor Haile Sellasie was offered a large monitory compensation in lieu of returning the Area to British hands but the Emperor declined. The British then tried to kill two birds with one stone by satisfying in one stroke both the need of nomadic Somalis for the Haud and Reserved Area for the grazing of their livestock and Ethiopia 's desire to have an outlet to the Gulf of Aden , the Eritrean ports being difficult. Accordingly, the Emperor was offered the whole area of Zeila in exchange of the Haud and Reserved Area. The Emperor also rejected that offer and that, in my view, proved to be a serious miscalculation on his part, for if he had accepted the offer Djibouti would have become an enclave within Ethiopia which could have laid then a much stronger claim to it upon decolonization. At that time, of course, Ethiopia was not landlocked, Eritrea being an integral part of it, and Djibouti was in the hands of the French who were not only friendly to the Emperor but were also well aware of the obvious symbiosis between the two countries – Djibouti and Ethiopia. The Emperor did not – perhaps could not – foresee or envision then the separation of Eritrea , the independence of Djibouti (both of which happened after his demise) and our virile nationalism. But, it was a blessing for us Somalis that the Emperor was blind to the opportunity which would not only have assured him of Djibouti but would also have brought the Ethiopian navy to our shores as Djibouti would have ceased to be a littoral buffer between us and the Ethiopians.

Ethiopia 's second miscalculation also concerns Djibouti . In 1958 France , under the leardership of Gen. De Gaulle, decided to hold referenda in all its African possessions with a choice between staying with France and opting for independence. In Djibouti , the late Mahmoud Harbi and his party were fighting for independence while Hassan Gulaid and his party were campaigning against it. Our hearts, though not yet independent ourselves, were with Mahmoud Harbi and his freedom fighters, and we denounced Hassan Gulaid and his friends as imperialist lackeys. Ethiopia was working against the independence of Djibouti , which was then called French Somaliland, because it feared that it might give fresh impetus to our young nationalism in British Somaliland which had been spurred by the effective transfer of the Haud and Reserved Area only three years before; Somalia was also scheduled for independence only two years from then. This fear blinded the Emperor to the very real possibility of creating a situation in Djibouti which would have allowed Ethiopia to march into it upon the departure of the French on the pretext that it was protecting its own citizens and interests in Djibouti or that it was part of Ethiopia before French colonialism. In those days gunboat diplomacy was still very much alive and the French, once their presence was rejected would not have lifted a finger in defense of Djibouti . And, of course, there was no Somalia to deter Ethiopian aggression. Luckily, the French rigged the referendum in their favour and thereby unwittingly forestalled ‘Ethiopian intervention'. It would surely have been in the interest of Ethiopia if Djibouti became independent in 1958 – an independence against which Ethiopia fought hard.

In the event, Hassan Gulaid was vindicated and he changed his position at the right time in the 1967 referendum in favor of independence. The Emperor, determined as ever to thwart our irredentism, was clearly in collusion with the French who again rigged the plebiscite in their favor and changed the name of the country to the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas much to the delight of His Imperial Majesty. I vividly remember that dangerous moment when, having maintained a heavy military contingent at Abdul Qadir (which is situated in close physical proximity to Djibouti ) we were ready to capture Djibouti itself if the French, upon abrupt departure, beckoned Ethiopia to move in.

Somali Blunders

We Somalis have also made quite a few historical blunders of our own. I am told by elderly and credible eye witnesses of history that on the eve of the transfer of the Ogaden and part of the Reserved Area to Ethiopia in1948 the British local administrators in Jigjiga apprised some of the Somali elders of the impending transfer and sought to incite them to violent demonstrations so that the administrators would advise the British government against the transfer in view of the unstoppable violent reactions of the indigenous people. The administrators had advised against it and wanted their position to be vindicated and to prove thereby that the impression created by the Foreign Office in London that the local people would be indifferent, if not favorably disposed, to the transfer was false. However, much to the disappointment of the local administrators there was no reaction from the Somali side apart from feeble and half-hearted protestations of few SYL members. In the event, the transfer went ahead because there was no locally organized popular and politically sustainable force to be reckoned with. The British tried to justify their perfidy by citing an Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement which had been concluded and signed in 1897 and to which we were not a party. Most agreements are, however, subject to rebus sic stantibus and the British could have – perhaps would have – allowed that agreement to fall into desuetude and become a dead letter had we ourselves been sufficiently educated and vigilant We would have foreseen and blocked all the Anglo-Ethiopian conspiracies by which our lands were surreptitiously transferred. Under the treaties of protection our forefathers signed with Britain we were supposed to be protected, not sold to the Ethiopians or any other power for that matter. And to add insult to injury the delegation we sent in 1955 to the British government and the UN to reverse the transfer of the Haud and Reserved Area by invoking those treaties was told that such treaties had no validity in International Law because we were not sovereign. Yet, it was those same treaties that gave international recognition to Britain 's suzerainty over our land. Had the earlier transfer of the ‘Ogaden and Part of the Reserved Area' been effectively pre-empted through vigorous and sustained popular action in 1948 we would have avoided that annus horribilis and its repetition in 1954/55 when the British transferred the Haud and the rest of the ‘Reserved Area' in utter disregard of our sensibilities. Apparently, the British were so, if wrongly, sure of our indifference to this latter transfer as well. However, there is a silver lining in every dark cloud, and those unfortunate events were not without their compensation as our inflamed passions unleashed an accelerated a virile nationalist movement for British Somaliland 's independence and consequent union with Somalia .

Surprisingly, we had been presented with a golden opportunity in 1948 which we also squandered ourselves. That was the time when the entire Somali areas, with the exception of Djibouti , were in the hands of the British Military Administration. Bevin's plan for a Greater Somalia, although torpedoed by a Soviet veto in the Security Council, could have been resuscitated and the key for its implementation lay in the hands of the SYL leaders in Mogadishu . After the Second World War the victorious powers considered the fate of the former Italian possessions and decided to put Somalia under a U.N. trusteeship for ten years (1950 to 1960) in preparation for independence. Interestingly, only two countries voted for Somalia 's immediate independence at the time: Haiti (whose UN ambassador voted for Somalia in defiance of his country's instructions and was consequently dismissed from his post) and the newly established state of Israel . But we also received invaluable support from Sir Muhammad Zafarullah Khan an eloquent and highly respected Pakistani jurist who was his country's representative to the United Nations and later became a judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague . Both of these distinguished ambassadors were of course invited to our independence celebrations in 1960 and awarded the highest Medal of Honor our country could give. The few Arab States that existed at the time threw all their weight behind Libya whose independence was immediately secured as a result.

Having decided to prepare Somalia for independence for ten years the Security Council considered which country was best suited to undertake that responsibility under the UN Trusteeship and the “Four-Power Commission” was sent over to Mugadishu in January, 1948 in order to sound out the Somalis themselves as to their preference. Our SYL leaders were great nationalists, honest and forthright; after all it is they who secured our independence and we have to be grateful to them. But their serious shortcomings which were lack of education and knowledge of the mechanics and the dynamics of international politics led them to an unfortunate choice which, if accepted, would have spelt out disaster for Somalia . They asked all the four powers (the US , UK , USSR and France ) to administer Somalia ; fortunately, that was thought impractical; otherwise, Somalia would have been divided into four sectors like Berlin (the American Sector, the British Sector, the French Sector and the Soviet Sector). It is said that the British had expected the SYL leaders to choose the UK as the administering power so that all the Somali territories would be united under their rule; they were even contemplating to enter into negotiations with France for the exchange of French Somaliland with one of their island possessions. The SYL had been established and was flourishing under British rule in Somalia and the British had every right for all the cogent reasons to expect its leaders to choose Britain as the administering power. But the leaders were so shortsighted and inept that they feared that Britain, being a world power, would use every subterfuge and stratagem to overstay well beyond its mandate or even deny the country its independence; they were so obsessed with the single goal of independence that they were blind to all the benefits accruing from British rule: the unification of Somali territories; development of a unified administration, a unified educational system; a common colonial heritage; a common outlook; and of course the integration of the economy. These are all problem areas which proved to be debilitating and even pernicious to the Somali state. The leaders thought that Italy would by contrast be a better choice because, being vanquished and weak, they would be able to wrest independence from it if it tried to create obstacles. But the Italians also lobbied hard to return to Somalia , albeit in a different capacity, and managed to gain the sympathy of the United States particularly since they were in dire straits after the war and had shown their contrition by the public hanging of their fascist leader, Il Duce Mussolini.

Italy had therefore its own selfish aim in returning to Somalia , but our leaders were vigilant and constantly fighting with it as it tried to do lip service to its trusteeship mandate and even prolong it in order to further its colonial interests. Our nationalism was virile and fervent but our ignorance was so abysmally dismal that when the Italians used tear gas on one occasion to disburse stone-throwing demonstrators in Mogadishu one of the SYL men ran to the party headquarters and reported that the Italians “threw an atomic bomb on the crowd”. Evidently, however, the choice of Italy was manifestly a bad one from the very start. That country had been destroyed by the war and its economy was in shambles to put it mildly; it woefully lacked political stability as successive governments tumbled down in quick succession; it was also bereft of a stable, strong and merit-based bureaucracy which was described even in the sixties as underpaid, corrupt, undisciplined and inefficient; and the Mafia played a prominent role in the country's affairs which made Italian political culture full of intrigue and scheming. We have undoubtedly made a grievous historical error in favoring Italy as the power that would teach us governance and prepare us for independence. In so doing we violated our own Somali wisdom which says: “ ninkaad kabo ka tolaneysid kabihiisaa la eegaa ”. It was to that Italian culture and that Italian fractured polity, aggravated by our divisions along clan lines instead of party lines, that we fell prey as soon as we tasted self-rule in 1956. That self-rule under those inauspicious circumstances weakened our nationalism and pushed clan divisions to the fore. I am strongly convinced that endemic southern instability owes its origin to the Italian manipulations and machinations of those days.

Armed Conflict as an Agent of Change

Benjamin Franklin was substantially right when he said, “There was never a good war or a bad peace”. But wars bring about changes and often fundamental changes. War is no doubt an agent of change since people – and governments - have to cope with its aftermath. Tragedies can be molded into positive change. That was what prompted that shrewd observer, Winston Churchill, in comparing a pessimist and an optimist, to say: “An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity”. We and our Ethiopian neighbors have been at each other's throat for a long time our bone of contention being that large territory which is shown on the map of Ethiopia but is so Somali and so un-Ethiopian in all other respects. We both engaged ceaselessly through the years in a war of words and our propaganda machines were geared to outdo each other. But we fought two real wars in 1964 and in 1977/78. The World, having shrunk into the village it has become, became well aware, unlike the past, of our territorial dispute with Ethiopia . In 1982 I participated in a UN experts meeting in Spain and I found myself sitting at dinner next to Dean Donald Stone, a renowned, revered and recognized authority in Planning and Development Administration. He looked so old that he must have been an octogenarian. In the middle of the conversation he asked me what we and the Ethiopians were fighting about. I told him we were fighting about a territory of whose reality we had two different perceptions: the Ethiopians derived their reality from the map which showed that the territory was Ethiopian while we derived our reality from the facts on the ground which showed that the territory was Somali for all intents and purposes. Dean Stone seemed satisfied as he nodded and did not utter a word, and the conversation drifted to other topics.

There are those who contend that the 1977/78 war was disastrous for Somalia . I agree that Siad Barre's government fell short of attaining its objective at monumental costs. Some would say it was simply a costly misadventure which led to Somalia 's own destruction. I beg to differ. Whilst we were succeeding at the battle front we were failing dismally at the diplomatic front, and the forces which were arrayed against us and drove us out of the territory we liberated were but the manifestation of a tragic diplomatic failure. Our policymakers were soldiers who thought that in war only military hardware and military thinking mattered. But, surprisingly, that war brought Ethiopians and Somalis closer to each other. It was a sobering experience for both of them; the Ethiopians had dangerously underestimated us and had been dismissive of us as it never entered their minds that ‘a handful of Somalis' (as their press put it) could capture an inch of territory: that arrogance and their delusion of grandeur were shattered even before we were pounding at the gates of Harar and Dire Dawa, and they knew in their heart of hearts that they were saved by the Soviets. Moreover, the war plunged Ethiopia deep into debt to the Soviet Union and many Ethiopians were deeply resentful that their country which had been free for thousands of years and had never been colonized – a fact of which they had been ostentatiously proud – was reduced to a mere client state of the Soviet Union because of the war with Somalia. The Soviets, their ideology and the regimentation of life that was inherent in their totalitarian system were so hated that when the statue of Lenin was brought down in 1991 by the EPRDF there were jubilant celebrations throughout Addis Ababa . I am told that when both Ethiopia and Somalia attended a year or two after the war the OAU ministerial conference in Freetown (Sierra Leone), which normally preceded the summit, some members of the Ethiopian delegation said to their Somali counterparts: “we can forget the war, but we will never forgive you for the ignominy of pushing us under Soviet domination”. I would never have thought at the time that the two delegations would even speak to each other. But, for us too the expulsion of the Soviets from our country was a welcome byproduct of the war.

However, the government of Mengistu Haile- Mariam was keenly and painfully aware of the heavy toll the hostilities with Somalia was exacting a heavy toll on the Ethiopian economy: first, keeping a huge army proved to be too heavy a burden; secondly, it discouraged investment in the disputed area which was known to have gas deposits and also suspected to have petroleum deposits as well; thirdly, Somali ports would be needed to export those vital resources; fourthly, Ethiopian Moslems (including those in Addis Ababa itself) were feared to be susceptible to the propaganda and influence of their coreligionists to the east of the border who could use them to blow up or at least sabotage economic installations; and finally, Somalia was attempting to bring about the disintegration of Ethiopia by training, arming and encouraging fissiparous tendencies in certain nationalities in Ethiopia and was at the same time extending full support to the Eritreans on a sustainable basis. For all these reasons the Ethiopians were favorably disposed towards rapprochement with the Siad Barre regime. The latter had itself been shaken by an attempted coup and feared being destabilized by Ethiopia when both the SSDF and SNM started to operate from Addis Ababa . The two countries consequently exchanged high-level visits just few years after the war in order to improve relations as a first step towards economic cooperation. That was the first light signaling a departure from destructive engagement and towards a common strategy for the well-being and economic survival of the two peoples. The two leaders (Mengistu and Siad Barre) pledged to freeze their support to the armed fronts operating from each other's country. It seems, in retrospect, however, that mutual suspicion prevented both leaders to redeem their pledges. It is argued at times that the Ethiopians were amenable to a concession of sorts (not necessarily territorial) before the SSDF and SNM established themselves in Addis Ababa – a move which emboldened the Ethiopian side and weakened ours. However, regime change was in store for both countries.

The year 1991 brought fundamental changes to both Somalia and Ethiopia starting with the violent change of the regimes. The implosion in our country took place in January of that year and Addis Ababa fell, with the flight of Mengistu, to the EPRDF followed only five months later. Although with the fall of the Siad Barre regime our State vanished immediately the policy towards Ethiopia undoubtedly paid off to a great extent, for we soon had friends at the helm of Ethiopia and Eritrea . As a matter of fact both Meles Zenawi and Isias Afeworke have openly acknowledged, with much gratitude, the unfailing assistance they had been receiving from our side. And I was pleasantly surprised to come in contact with Somali-speaking senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Asmara when I participated in an international symposium for the writing of the Eritrean Constitution in 1995. President Isias held a reception for the participants who were truly international and real experts in their own respective areas. But I was elated when the Somali-speaking Eritrean officials brought the President himself to me where I was standing to introduce me to him – incredible but true. The President and I had a half-hour conversation and I was impressed both with his excellent Arabic and equally excellent English as our conversation alternated between those two languages. The President was full of praise for Somalia and the Somali people; he told me how deeply grateful he and the Eritrean people were for all that sincere support they had received and was solicitous about our sad situation and the stability of our country. I went to Asmara again in the following year to train some of their senior officials and on both occasions I was struck by the genuine love and affection the Eritrean people had for the Somali people. It was seemed to me that every man jack of them was truly sad, like the President, about what was happening to us. I have never met Prime Minister Meles but all those who met him are convinced that he feels he owes a debt of gratitude.

Were it not for the implosion and consequent destruction of our State (which still remains moribund) we would have played a major role in the Horn of Africa mediating between Ethiopia and Eritrea, between Eritrea and Yemen, and between Eritrea and Djibouti and playing an important role in both the OAU and IGAD whose problem child we have so lamentably become. I also believe that the circumstances would have been most propitious for our own internal reconciliation, if only our State outlived Mengistu by a few months. The Somali Regional State in Ethiopia would have been stable, well-organized and ready for a referendum as to whether they wanted to secede or remain in Ethiopia . I know that the current policymakers in Ethiopia feel that the stability of that region was contingent upon Somalia itself being stable. While Prof. Sa'id Samatar and I were participating in the International Symposium for Writing of the Eritrean Constitution in 1995 in Asmara the Speaker of the National Assembly of Ethiopia, Ato Dawit Yohannes, asked to meet us privately and we were joined by Dr. Elmi Du'aleh who was then WHO Representative in Asmara but is now our Ambassador-Designate to the UN. The Speaker told us (and I am sure both Sa'id and Elmi will bear me out) that they (the Ethiopian Government) were facing very difficult and intractable problems with the Somali region which was being destabilized by the situation in Somalia because, as he put it, “the people on both sides of the border were the same” (we were glad to hear him acknowledge that simple fact). He said that, in their view therefore, the best way to stabilize the Somali Regional State in Ethiopia was by stabilizing Somalia itself and he asked us how educated Somalis could help in stabilizing their country. Sadly, we had no impromptu solutions ourselves but we did discuss the situation.

The Challenges

Changes have actually been occurring in Ethiopia ever since the demise of Haile Sellassie some thirty years ago. The Emperor used to tell the world that Ethiopia was a Christian country and used to stipulate in furtherance of that claim that mosques should not have minarets and should otherwise remain indistinguishable from normal buildings. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was all-powerful and ruled the country with the Emperor as there was no separation between the Church and the State. All that changed when Mengistu came to power and the church lost its prominent place in the affairs of the State. And for the first time in Ethiopia the government acknowledged that the country was half Christian and half Moslem; and for the first time ever in Ethiopian history the birthday of Prophet Mohammed (SAWS), and the two Moslem Eids were celebrated and the streets of Addis Ababa glittered at night on the behest of the revolutionary government with colorful lights on those occasions. The current regime added to those changes and allowed Moslems to leave the offices for Jum'a prayers and to pray in the Stadium and the squares of Addis Ababa on the special religious occasions of Eid Al Ad'ha and Eidal Fitr.

To understand the challenges facing us today we have to take, first and foremost, the fundamental changes that have occurred in Ethiopia over the last thirty years. There are those who, being blind to these changes, are still locked in the past. They still argue that Ethiopia wants to divide and dominate Somalia . Such an argument is sterile, negative and unhelpful. These are the people who cannot come up with a proper argument as to how we should handle the new situations in Ethiopia and in our country. Ethiopia itself has been divided by forced change into Ethiopia and Eritrea; a federal structure has been introduced to ensure that each nationality within Ethiopia enjoys a measure of home rule and uses its vernacular as the official language; the right to secede has been enshrined in the constitution; for the first time in its history Ethiopia has publicly and formally acknowledged that there is a Somali region with Somali as its official language; and it formally acknowledged that the Somalis are the third largest ethnic group in Ethiopia – more numerous by far than the ruling Tigreans. In the days of Haile Sellassie the word “Somali” was a taboo and each Somali clan was said to be a separate nationality on its own; viz. the Ogaden nationality; the Issa nationality; the Gurgura nationality and so on. Such political nomenclature continued until the EPRDF came to power in 1991

These are all fundamental and irreversible changes which I have personally witnessed. On our side there have been fundamental changes too: we broke into clans and the heavy tide of clannism swept away the State we had long fought for. What happened to our State reminds me of the famous quotation from Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour: ‘ après nous le deluge' (i.e. after us, you will be swept away by the floods). Our situation also brought some far-reaching changes: a resurgence of clannism which still remains our scourge; a federal structure, separatism, and a whole different outlook and political philosophy brought about particularly by our exposure to the external world. Yet there was another fundamental change: it brought Somalis and Ethiopians closer to each other. We and our Ethiopian neighbors did not really know each other; and we had negative and demonizing views of each other for hundreds of years and our “envenomed frontier dispute” as the late Dame Margery Perham put it, made us see each other as enemies. Somalis suffered under a cruel Ethiopian rule which demonized Ethiopians in our eyes. However, when we were flung by that violent implosion of our country to the four corners of the world a huge number of us crossed the border and traveled far into Ethiopia until they reached Addis Ababa and came face to face with their erstwhile enemies to seek refuge in their country; and they were welcomed; and it was a welcome which was entirely unexpected. But a reciprocal situation has been created as Ethiopians also felt free to enter Somalia , live in it, work in it, trade in it and visit and use its ports without hindrance. The political barriers have thus been broken and the relationship between the two countries will no longer be defined by politicians alone; for what obtains now is a genuine people-to-people contact. It should be obvious in today's world and conditions that we can no longer remain prisoners to the superannuated political maxim that “neighbors are enemies; neighbors' neighbors are friends”. As educated men and women we should change our habits of mind and be flexible enough to cope with changing situations.

The current situations in both Ethiopia and Somalia truly pose an intellectual challenge to all of us. However, before we face the challenge of dealing with what the changes in Ethiopia mean to us we need to put our own act together. We have been repeatedly failed by the lack of education, the lack of enlightened leadership and prevalent narrow-minded clannism. Our intellectuals have been mesmerized by the war-lords in whose faces they have become helpless not minding the obvious fact that we Somalis irrespective of the clans we come from will either survive together or perish together without discrimination as to clan affiliation. Responding to this challenge will require the intellectuals to come together, form a network or networks – perhaps in the form of professional societies – change loyalties from kins to cronies and develop loyalty to one's own profession.


My conclusion from the foregoing is short and should be obvious. Today thank God, we have, unlike the past, people who are young and vigorous and educated. Everywhere in the world, past and present, it is the young people who bring about revolutionary change either with their own hands or by prodding old fogies who are at the helm to take action in the right direction. Alas our young have drunk too much from that poisoned well of clannism, but it is us the grown-ups who poisoned that well. The clan system on which our culture and tradition were based has always been there but its application had its own subtleties. The young people do not know these subtleties for they have not been brought up in their own culture and have no sense of history and no sense of culture. Some of them are so young that they cannot even remember being a sovereign nation and have been hearing only bad things about their country and their people. Inevitably, they will suffer from low self- esteem vis-à-vis other children of their age who come from well-established countries.

It is always easy to pinpoint the problems and expand on them but take refuge in brevity when it comes to the solutions. We should reform our youth, educate them, and inculcate in them a sense of service to their people and their country. Once they know it is their future we are talking about they will be responsive and will oblige. In this day and age it is absolutely imperative that we should work towards a knowledge-based government. We have missed so many opportunities in the past because our leaders did not have the necessary education and so were groping in the dark for national objectives they could not reach and in the process have actually been blind to the opportunities that were within reach. Today, with all the advantages we have (education, science, technology and know-how, mobilization of financial resources, etc.) we should be condemned as absolute fools if we do not do better to live better.

Ismail A. Ismail


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The Intellectual Paralysis of The Educated Somali

The Intellectual Paralysis of the Educated Somali
Ismail Ali Ismail
August 29,2005

Editors Note: This Piece was initially published at WardheerNews on November 2004. We revisit the issues again as the information is as current today as when the piece first appeared. Mr. Ismail Ali Ismail (Geeldoon) eloquently and clearly discusses and examines in an articulate manner the state of the Somali Intellectual. Other issues that augment the discussion such as the role of the Somali media and other issues that are pertinent to the Somali affairs of today are also touched upon. We hope our esteemed readers will enjoy this piece and surmise its bearing.


Somalia, it is generally agreed, is a very poor country. Its poverty, however, is not due to acute paucity of physical or natural resources; it is, as is the case in many Third World countries, due to a poverty of the mind. Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, once described his country as a rich country with poor people, and a former director of the UNDP Bureau for Africa once said with reference to Africa that it was outrageous that the World's richest continent should be the home of its poorest.

Somalia has more than 2.5 million acres of arable land, only a small fraction of which is cultivated. Its animal wealth was estimated years ago at 45 million heads of camels, cattle, sheep and goats. Petroleum, uranium and various other mineral deposits are also known to be lurking underground and offshore. It is even reported that the country - known to be arid territory - is blessed with underground lakes. At an estimated 10m., the population is very small and its density very low. Its coastline extends 3200 kms., the longest in Africa (South Africa's is 2,789 kms. long), parts of which are believed to have been exposed to irresponsible and callous dumping of chemical and nuclear wastes. Somalia's marine resources are continually depleted and deliberately destroyed by the application of prohibited fishing methods – with the full knowledge of the powerful members of the community of nations. The country's marine economic zone – always unprotected – is for others to exploit and even destroy. But what is worse is that the sons of the soil have themselves aggravated the plight of the country by destroying its fauna and flora: so many uncountable trees have been destroyed by people who cannot see beyond their stomachs and are so desperate that they try to eke out a living by exporting charcoal to countries in the Arabian Peninsula. By denuding the country, they helped such agents of erosion as the winds and floods to accelerate desertification. I understand also that vast areas of arable land in the South of the country were turned into battlefields during the civil war and destroyed as a result. What can we say – I ask – about a people who destroy their own means of livelihood and then beg others to feed them? It is truly a situation which boggles the mind.

What the country lacks and so desperately needs is a high degree of human ingenuity to exploit and transmute its natural resources in order to improve the general quality of life. One of our tragedies - and a great one at that - is our lack of ability (or even the inclination) to develop our capacities to identify, much less transmute, our inanimate resources. With so much poverty and hunger in the midst of abundance of resources we truly are “ Ka mathalil ximaari yaxmlu asfaaran ” (the Qur'an).

In writing this essay, I was impelled mainly by three reason: first, some of our educated men and women have, unfortunately, identified themselves with the war-lords of their respective clans – or even sub-clans; secondly, it is a singular reflection that educated Somalis have not so far filled an obvious intellectual void in the face of issues which are matters of life and death for our nation; thirdly, the dire need for awakening the educated Somali, himself or herself, to the intellectual and political leadership he/she abdicated and abandoned. The issues, some of which I discuss below, are complex and daunting but they must none the less be dealt with.


Somalia has been led since independence by persons, the vast majority of whom had either a modicum of formal education or none at all. The first few university graduates who just returned at Independence were young and too inexperienced for the high posts they were destined to encumber and were inevitably occupied with the day-to-day administration of the country, albeit with the help of expatriate experts. They hardly had any time for reflection or policy planning and they lacked the necessary institutional infrastructure and educated political leaders who knew where they were going. Economic planning was scarcely used as an effective instrument of policy. When the military took over they came with the preconceived notion that civilians could neither be trusted nor able to provide effective leadership, and the few civilian graduates (some of whom were pitchforked from relative obscurity to the helm of ministries as 'secretaries of state') were, in fact, nothing more than glorified clerks. Policy decisions were made then, as before, by muddling through and at times, even on the spur of the moment. The military vowed to free administration from nepotism and favouritism but found themselves drifting back to cronyism and clannism, despite the symbolic burials of the latter. And, as expected, the gun was mightier than the pen as it is still today. The military said they had to step in because the country was falling off a precipice; but twenty years of their bad and tragic governance did actually push it over the precipice and we are now clumsily trying to collect and put together the disjecta membra of our nation from the bottom of that precipice..

In the face of all this, educated Somalis continue to show both ambivalence and diffidence. It has been said that politics is a dirty game. I would add that in Africa it is also a dangerous game. I realise that educated Somalis do not want to ‘dirty' their hands by engaging in politics and are not willing to face the perils of African politics. But they have nevertheless been vociferous in their complaint about the quality of our political leaders, the absence of rational policymaking, the lack of development, corruption, clannism and a host of other serious shortcomings. In short, they have been critical of everything that has gone wrong but have shied away from coming forward to fill the apparent intellectual void. I am reminded here of a humorous anecdote from the Sudan. It was related to me long ago that in the early days of Nemeiry's regime university professors and PhD holders (and there were thousands of them) were so vociferous and harsh in their criticism of the regime's policies and performance that Nemeiry, realizing that they were making a lot of sense, decided to appoint them to cabinet and other leadership positions. After two years the economy was in such shambles under their management that people were so disenchanted with them that they used to say upon encountering a senior official who was so patently helpless and inefficient: "The poor fellow is incapable of doing anything at all; he must be either a professor or a doctor". But the Sudan, very unlike Somalia, has had some real intellectuals of international repute as political leaders and at no time was the Sudan led, even under military regimes, by leaders who were so uneducated and ignorant as ours.

I am not implying that our professors and/or PhD holders are of the genre referred to in this Sudanese anecdote, but I believe it is incumbent upon them to step in and demonstrate the practical utility of their education. Mere collection of academic degrees will at the end of the day prove to be an exercise in futility; for the real worth of the knowledge that such degrees are testimony to is shown in the form of practical achievements on the ground. Nowhere is the challenge more pressing and urgent than in the area of political reforms so that we can have in the near future a healthy polity that will transcend clannism and thereby free the nation from the shackles of this archaic and pernicious aspect of our tradition and culture. Writing articles and books, speaking in symposia and presenting papers to other relevant fora are only the first step that can lead to a series of structured but serious debates. Politics is the key to all else and that was why Kwame Nkrumah said “Give me the political kingdom and everything else will follow.” Educated Somalis must not limit themselves to advocacy only but must also enter politics and compete for office, go into opposition when their opponents form the government, and must of course continue to preach good governance to the public. But, I know from experience that the Somali people are tired of listening to speeches from people who do not have a proven record of credibility - people who preach but have hidden agendas. In consequence, the people have become cynical. The essence of leadership is encapsulated in the paradoxical Arabic phrase " Sayyidul Qowmi Khaadimuhom" which, literally translated, means, “The master of the people is their servant". So the essence of leadership is service, not profit as some of us might think, and the authority inherent in leadership should be used, not in the pursuit of illicit pecuniary interests but to ensure effectiveness in serving the people. And if our positive actions speak louder then our homilies, public cynicism will be shunted off to the sideways.

Political leaders are expected to provide intellectual leadership which they cannot monopolise (many renowned and successful political leaders have been intellectual giants). We also need other people who can provide intellectual leadership in such areas as policy analysis, policy forecasting, economic analysis and social development; we need “think tanks” which are independent of government so that they will carry out future studies and illuminate the field of policy options; and of course we need men and women in the technical professions who will demonstrate initiative and leadership in their own areas.


History - both distant and recent - shows that overthrowing a dictator is usually a very expensive undertaking and it leaves behind, even when successful, a long trail of destruction in terms of lives and property. Rancour, long suppressed, erupts into violence, vengeance becomes the order of the day and so many innocent people pay with their lives for the excesses of their merciless rulers. In the case of Somalia, clannism did not allow the forces seeking to overthrow the dictator to unite and to agree in advance on power-sharing and what they should do next. Today, we are saddled with a proliferation of war-lords who are neither intellectually nor even temperamentally equipped to rule the country; nor are they willing to part with the clan fiefdoms they have created - fiefdoms that are now difficult to dismantle. We see coming on the horizon a government of sorts which will, in all probability, be dominated by the war-lords who are the most visible members of the parliament constituted in Nairobi.

The clan system is anachronistic and has proved to be octopus-like with its many tentacles; whenever you go free of one tentacle there are seven others that will pull you down. It is, in short, fatal to any enterprise in modernization. The coincidence of political and clan cleavages has already proved to be pernicious, not only to our national unity but to our very existence. I still remember a statement issued at the outbreak of the civil war (well, there is nothing civil about a war) from the U.S. State Department which said, inter alia , that Somalia was committing a national suicide. clannism is, without doubt, the greatest challenge facing educated Somalis, and it is a problem area which still paralyses their intellectual faculties. Nowhere else have we failed so dismally as in this area. Far from rising to the challenge of rising above it we have, in actual fact, succumbed to clannism. Look at our websites! you can even tell which website belongs to which clan. And look at many of the contributions! you can almost glean from them the clan affiliation of individual writers without even reading too closely between the lines. I am at times driven to despair when I see blunt expressions of clan prejudice in writing and when I see the various websites (supposedly run by 'educated' people) pandering to the lower tastes of bigots. It is appalling to see the utter lack of standards. I have also been reading in the websites that the "intellectuals" of this clan or that clan have met and decided that their clan should do such and such. When I read some of the contributions that are sent to the websites by people who possess the ultimate of academic degrees I am reminded by what that French philosopher, Montaigne, said when he was asked why he fled urban life in favour of village life. The question actually put to him was: “Why do you detach yourself from the civilized world?” to which his answer was: “I prefer the company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly .” (Emphasis mine) Education is supposed to throw light on the dark recesses of our Somali brains where clannism resides. Incidentally, any one who calls himself ' intellectual' is surely not an intellectual. It is also grotesque to call oneself ' aqoonyahan ' (which is not at all the correct translation of ‘intellectual') for no one is such, and the claim smacks of arrogance. Literally, " aqoonyahan " means "expert in knowledge" or "someone possessing wide-ranging knowledge” and anyone who claims to be " aqoonyahan " is truly ignorant. Education is supposed to teach modesty arising out of the awareness of our shortcomings. That is why it was said: "Education is Man's going from cock-sure ignorance to a thoughtful uncertainty". The great El Khaliil Ibn Ahmed El Frahiidi (the pioneer of Arabic Grammer) classified men into four categories in so far as possession of knowledge is concerned. He said: ‘Men are of four kinds: there is one who does not know and knows that he does not know; he is ignorant and needs to be instructed. There is another who knows and does not know that he knows; he is in a slumber and needs to be awakened. There is yet another who knows and knows that he knows; he is learned and needs to pass his knowledge. And yet there is another who does not know and does not know that he does not know; that one is a presumptuous ignoramus and should be rejected.' We need to search internally as to which of these categories we belong to. All that philosophizing aside, are we not perpetuating our nefarious clannism through repeatedly incendiary writings?

I have heard many of us blaming the existence of clannism on corrupt and divisive leaders. I agree that leaders have, in practicing a policy of divide and rule, exacerbated clan divisions. But our leaders were the product of our Society and they filled a gap unbridged by the “intellectuals”. Somalis generally but particularly those who have no shame to call themselves "intellectuals", should turn their mental faculties to this problem with a view to: (a) lessening clan tensions by desisting from inflaming passions either through their writings or orally; (b) ceasing to advocate clan solidarity; (c) reaching out to like-minded members of the other clans, and (d) engaging in informed and intellectual discussions on the eradication of clannism. When I was District Commissioner of Hargeisa in the mid-sixties the track record of British colonial administrators was still extant and I was amazed to discover from the files that British colonial officers in Somaliland had a very intellectually engaging and interesting discussion on how a Somali could 'detribalise' by opting out of the Xeer and I believe they passed a sort of legislation which allowed educated and urbanised Somalis to do so. I was under the impression, like everyone else, that ‘divide and rule' was an integral part of colonial policy and did not expect such enlightened and forward-looking policy discussions from colonial officers. By contrast, we Somalis, after so much education, economic advance, urbanization, experience in governance, and rubbing shoulders with more advanced societies have not tried in this day and age even to conceptualize the problem. It is a stark failure on the part of those of us who, by the mere possession of academic degrees, claim to be the intelligentsia of our society.

I agree that eradicating the system of clannism (note that "clan" and "clannism" are two different things) is not easy; nor can it be an effort of a short duration. I think Disraeli's observation that “Time is the great physician” is apt and relevant in this case. The rancour will subside, the wounds will heal in time and a community of interest will replace the clan in the long run. All is possible provided we work towards the goal of supplanting clannism with strong communities of interest.


I suspect that those who decided on a federal structure for our country did so without being fully aware of its complex ramifications. We are beginning a new epoch in our history without charting a proper course for our future and without knowing what lies ahead. The civil war has been as much cataclysmic as it was destructive. It has led us to a new era of federalism and clan balance and we have made our choices without debate as to advantages and disadvantages. We are stepping into a dark room without the means to illuminate it and without knowing therefore what we might encounter; we are taking a leap unnecessarily into the unknown. Myself, I have said enough about the implications of federalism for Somalia on many occasions both orally and in writing and I do not want to repeat myself here. Federalism has been up in the air for a very long time - even before the advent of the TNG. Yet, the vast majority of educated Somalis did not bother to have an in-depth discussion on it before the monumental decision of its adoption was taken both in Djibouti and Nairobi. Surely, much blame can be laid in this regard to the account of Somali "intellectuals". But, the challenge still remains, and it seems that our new policymakers will most likely seriously underestimate the amount of hard and gruelling work and time needed to erect federalism on its proper feet. There is still, fortunately, a role for educated Somalis to play, particularly those who live or have lived in countries where federalism is successful. There is the danger that federalism might fail if not properly established and it may take years, if not decades, before we realize that it is failing. After forty four years of experimenting with different forms of government can we afford expensive experiments any further? The agreement on federalism being irrevocable the challenge before us now is to see to it that it works and meets the expectations of the general populace.

Human Rights

Our hapless country has been poor in human rights for the last three decades and half. There have been too many transgressions and the war-lords have played havoc in the country; nor am I sure whether there will be any human rights under a government composed of war-lords, by war-lords, for war-lords. There is a promise that, once disarmed, the war-lords will be phased out, or will phase themselves , mirabile dictu , out once their security is guaranteed. The soi-disant “Islamists” have also become a force to be reckoned with and are not willing to abdicate the role they have played so far to a new government which may not heed their advice, much less yield to them.

Our great religion teaches us, not only human rights, but the right of all living things to life and liberty. Extremism has no place in Islam. When Europe was in its dark ages and the Americas were not even on the map Islam was a beacon of light, learning and liberty in the World. Today, we are learning from those who learnt from us – laga bareyba laga badi. To think and argue, therefore, that Islam and human rights are incongruent is to be ignorant of Islam. In this connection, I wish to encourage those who by reason of their exclusively Western education have come to think that good human values were invented in the West to familiarize themselves with the history of Islamic Civilization. They will then understand why we need not agree with some excessively latitudinarian interpretations of human rights. There is fertile ground in our country for those educated Somalis who want to play a much needed role in advancing the cause of human rights. This must surely include religious scholars, particularly those whose minds are open to modern thought and can understand it in the light of the teaching of the prophet.

An independent, credible and respected judiciary is a sin qua non to human rights, and so are legal societies (including the Bar) which set standards of performance as well as professional ethics. The legal profession is an intellectual profession which is needed very much in a new Somalia, not for human rights alone but also as one of the main pillars of successful federalism.


I have only touched on few of the salient issues that pose challenges to educated Somalis and they by no means constitute an exhaustive list. I know that there are haphazard and uncoordinated contributions posted on the various websites, but these have not led to structured and sustained discussions with credible approaches to the pressing problems confronting our country. Some of the postings do not seem to have been properly thought out. Furthermore, it is unfortunate that there is scarcely any liaison between educated Somalis and those others who aspire to the leadership of our country. Dr.Geedi is under pressure to appoint the war-lords to the most important ministerial positions. I personally see nothing wrong with the magic 4.5 formula to ensure clan balance which guarantees that no one is left out; it has the advantage of giving a sense of belonging to all sections of society. The present parliament has the advantage of being a cross-section of our society - an advantage which I hope will not be cancelled out by substituting excellence for mediocrity. It should be obvious that I am not opposed to clans: I am opposed to clannism. As I previously stated, most of the educated Somalis have viewed any discussion on clan representation and balance with a degree of ambivalence which shows a conflict between the intellectual faculty (the mind) and the emotional faculty (the heart). Their hearts tell them that their respective clans should be "properly" represented; but they know in their own minds that if a clan tries to reassert itself at the expense of the others there will be no reconciliation. In any case, those who abhor the idea of a parliament of clan representatives have yet to come up with a better one.

The government of today, unlike any before it, has to be knowledge-based. It faces a myriad of issues which are too complex and too complicated for our leaders. The country is emerging from a devastating war and a huge construction task is inevitably the priority of priorities. There is need to learn how we should exploit our vast marine resources by using the latest technology - but we have to have the technologies first. We are in a situation which calls for the different kinds of marine scientists so that we can exploit the resources of the sea; sadly, however, few, if any, of our professionals are in any of the different branches of marine science. We are in an age in which technology creates resources- an age in which global competitiveness means that the strong survives and the weak perishes, or, at best, depends on handouts.

The intellectual capital of a nation is sine qua non to its survival, its development and its march forward. Our country stagnated, deteriorated, collapsed and broke to pieces. Where then is our intellect – the brainchild of our education?

Ismail Ali Ismail


We welcome the submission of all articles for possible publication on So please email your article today Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of WardheerNews

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Copyright © 2005

Warlordism,Oralism,Clanism and The Murky Waters of Somali History

Warlodism, Oralism, CLanism and The Murky Waters of Somali History
By Ismail Ali Ismail
June 7, 2005

“Prejudice is the ink with which we write history”
Mark Twain

Wherefore Art Thou History?

Those Somali Anglophiles who must have read Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet will find a familiar ring about this subtitle. I feel much the same way about our history as Juliet did about Romeo when she cried, “Wherefore art thou Romeo”, and I am always bothered whenever I recall the belligerent harangue of a certain Debela Dinsa who, as a member of the Dergue, had been put in charge of mobilizing the Ethiopian masses against our country in the 1977/78 war. In war one can understand the incendiary role of the propaganda machine, but what bothered me most was his well-publicized and so frequently repeated assertion that the war was “between people who have history and people who have no history”. On reflection, however, I find his assertion plausible and I ask myself: ‘Where is our history?'

Haile selassie
Siad Barre
The Ethiopians claim a history of three thousand years even though we know that Abyssinia , the previous name of Ethiopia, was established by Menelik only in the 19 th century. Menelik claimed that Ethiopia extended from Khartoum in the North to Lake Victoria in the South and many Ethiopians believe that to be true. Similarly, Haile Sellassie claimed at one time that Somalia was part of Ethiopia prior to the advent of European colonialism which, as he said, carved up Somalia out of Ethiopian territory. This claim, fictitious though it was, was supported by Sylvia Pankhurst, not only in her book, Somalia, but also in a number of her campaigns in promoting that claim.

We would have probably become Ethiopians had it not been for the SYL which at that crucial time awakened Somali nationalism in all Somali-inhabited areas – including what is now the Somali Regional State of Ethiopia. The British Labor Government had also a different idea – a plan for the formation of a Greater Somalia. That plan was killed at infancy by the Soviet Union. But, the Governor of Somaliland, Sir Gerald Reece (known to the Somalis as Kama Kame) was also fiercely opposed to Ms. Pankhurst and served as her antidote. Prior to his appointment as Governor of Somaliland Sir Gerald was the Provincial Commissioner of the NFD where his pro-Somali leanings were very well-known; for he was an admirer of Lord Delamere, the founder of Kenya, who owed his life to a Somali, called Abdalla Ashour, who saved him from the grip of the lion that was mauling him. Lord Delamere was so grateful that he used to say (and this is documented, by the way) that any colonial officer who disliked Somalis was one who hated him.

Sadly, all that happened in that era is recorded in scattered bits and pieces and in books which have long been out of print. But, we Somalis have been independent and sovereign for nearly half a century. We may dismiss the last fifteen years as sheer wastes, but they are none the less part of our unrecorded historical record. We have been making history all along; for the wheel of history can neither be stopped nor slowed down. But no one can tell the likes of Debela Dinsa when our history began or where they can read about it.

The Makers of Somali History.

Aden Cade Sharmarke
Our history is made by us but recorded by others piecemeal with all their prejudices, distortions, misconceptions and misunderstanding. World historians showed no interest because in their eyes Somalia, unlike Egypt for example, was never fertile or rich in history. To my knowledge there are no Somali historians, excepting Professor Sa'id Samatar, though there are quite a few Somalis who specialized in history as a subject. It is my view that to read history is quite different from becoming a historian, but I do appreciate the enormous difficulties that discourage our history specialists from rising to the challenge of writing our history. The dearth of historical material comes readily to mind. Even whatever little we had of colonial records have been permanently locked away and allowed to be devoured and reduced to dust by the termites. Those records were, of course, of no value to our policymakers who were largely uneducated and some of whom were even barely literate. And those very few administrators who were literate enough to make use of those files, surveys, studies and other documents merely succumbed to the oral tradition which made them averse to reading and researching.

It has been alleged that Bille Rafle incinerated, when military governor of Hargeisa, the “entire collection of the library” which the British bequeathed to the new State because, being, as charged, an “ignorant” person ( jaahil ) he could not understand that he was setting a national treasure – something of a heritage – on fire. The truth is that the British did not leave anything of value for us. First, they burnt, with some justification, all the important, sensitive and therefore secret files which would have given us some valuable insights into their designs and policies. Secondly, they left some open and confidential files which gave no inkling as to their secrets. Thirdly, they also left behind few journals and books of a general nature and stocked them in a very small room which they called “Secretariat Library”. Scarcely anyone made use of that room since the British left. I even doubt that it was ever opened, except on rare occasions when somebody would venture inside to see what was available. I first saw this library in 1960 when I started my service with the Somali government in Hargeisa upon graduation from secondary school in Aden . It was then in a very good shape. I also saw the ‘library' on a number of occasions when I was District Commissioner of Hargeisa in the mid 60s and found it to be in a sorry state. But when I approached Bille in 1975 to let me borrow some of the reports or documents he told me “that place is a stinking garbage; what can you get from it?” I insisted and managed to get two reports on salary surveys and a dilapidated and torn copy each of the Local Authority Ordinance of 1952 and the Indian Law of Evidence which I have kept since then. Bille and I have been on the best of terms since the days we served together in Burao – he as the military governor and I (a civilian) as his deputy. Those were the days when the top positions in the field administration were the exclusive preserve of military officers.

This story, however, does not only exonerate Bille but it also demonstrates, like so many other stories, which are without any foundation whatsoever, how events are misconstrued or distorted by people who neither witnessed them nor heard them from authentic sources. I sometimes wonder in total amazements how young people write distorted versions of our history in the websites, and I have seen contradictory accounts being portrayed as authentic historical rendering.

I do not blame those people, for the fault lies , first and foremost with those who themselves made history but left nothing in terms of written memoirs or even oral recordings for posterity. I have in mind people like Abdullahi Isse, Mohammed Haji Hussein, Adan Abdulle Osman, Mohammed Ibrahim Egal, Abdurazak Haji Hussein, Abdurasheed Ali Sharmarke, Ahmed Haji Du'ale, Michael Mariano, Jama Abdullahi Ghalib and others who made history and have not left anything for us. Some of them are still with us in fact and can be and should be persuaded to leave something of a heritage for the country. I remember having a post-prandial conversation with the late Michael Mariano in my home in Addis Ababa some decades ago in the course of which I earnestly asked him to pass on his rich historical experience to the younger generations but he complained about the government putting obstacles in his way. I had a similar discussion with Jama Abdullahi Ghalib (first Speaker of our National Assembly) who now lives in Lusaka ( Zambia ). Jama and I became good friends (although we belong to two different generations) when I took up residence in Zambia upon transfer from Addis Ababa in 1998. He has a lot of history to tell, but he was not also in the mood of leaving anything behind. I understand that the late Mr. Egal left behind so many historical documents which are now in the possession of his widow. Someone, perhaps his children, should weave the various parts together and give us a coherent historical record from the perspective of the late Mr. Egal. Luckily we also have living historical repositories in Abdurazak Haji Hussein and Ahmed Haji Du'ale. Both live in the United States and have the facilities to enable them give us their versions of history. But I think it is safe to assume that because of his advanced age former President Adan Abdulle Osman is not in a position to write or even dictate his contribution. Maybe his sons are in a position to write about their father just the same way Margaret Truman wrote about her father- President Harry S. Truman.

But twenty-one years of military rule must have their place of history. The primary source for this period is, without question, those members of the Supreme Revolutionary Council who are still alive. We need someone who can tell us objectively how the revolution was planned and executed and the role, if any, of the Soviet Union in it. A key figure is, of course, Gen. Mohammed Ali Samatar who was as instrumental in changing the direction of the country as he was in the military buildup. He also directed the war with Ethiopia and entered into negotiations to reassure and neutralize the Soviet Union. That was a time when the West was also keen to extricate Somalia from the Soviet block and was believed by to have made some overtures to the Somali regime which the latter was not quick enough to grasp. Ali Samatar was privy to and a key player in all that happened behind the curtains in that crucial period when huge and more powerful forces were arrayed against us comprising Soviet generals and materiel as well as South Yemeni and Cuban forces beside the Ethiopians. After our defeat – we prefer to call it withdrawal – an Ethiopian colleague said to me jokingly, “ Ismail, we taught you Somalis a lesson” and I replied to him, also jokingly, “Yes, but the lesson was in Russian, not in Amharic”. He looked at me and simply walked away.

Today, all I read about that war was that the Ethiopians routed the Somalis. Ethiopian academics spread that lie every day. We never see a Somali version of that bit of our history anywhere; even Somali writers echo the same lies. Ali Samatar can put the record straight by providing a written and authoritative account of what actually happened. We also need to know – and posterity will need to know – his answer to the serious accusations that have been laid to his account, particularly in so far as the strafing from the air of women and children fleeing from the fighting in Hargeisa was concerned. The public have heard from the accusing side and it is only fair to hear also from Ali Samatar. He is gifted with cogent reasoning and lucidity of presentation, and he can surely make a great contribution in filling the yawning gap in our history. It cannot be gainsaid that our leaders – military and civilians alike – have put a lid on our history and by so doing have kept us in the dark. We badly need explanations and clarifications; otherwise, rumors will establish themselves as history.

An example of this is a story which was circulated in the sixties within the informed circles of our society to the effect that when the late Abdullahi Isse was in Rome in late 1962 or early 63 negotiating, as foreign minister, the transfer of the NFD with his British interlocutor the British offered us three instead of the six districts. It is said that Abdullahi was inclined to accept the proposed compromise except that the late Abdurasheed Ali Sharmarke who was Prime Minister then flew all the way from China where he was visiting to Rome where he joined the talks and took the position of ‘all or nothing'. The talks broke down as a result and we ended up with nothing. I have also been told that Kenneth Kaunda in his later efforts to mediate between Somalia and Kenya managed to convince Mr. Kenyatta to give away the three purely Somali districts in Northern Kenya to Somalia . But, I am told, when the two sides (the Somali side and the Kenyan) met in Arusha Mr. Egal forestalled the process of negotiation by making a hasty declaration that Somalia had no claim against Kenya. I am told Kenyatta was so ecstatic that he jumped to his feet and embraced Mr. Egal calling him “My Brother”, that and one could see Kenyatta shedding tears of joy. The Arusha Memorandum of Understanding of 1967 actually states that the dispute between the two countries would be solved amicably. The text of the Memorandum contradicts this story. However, I am not sure if the two leaders met again, but if the storey is true (and the person who told me says he heard it from Kaunda himself) it would mean that the same opportunity presented itself once more and was bungled by a Prime Minister. I cannot say whether any of these two stories is authentic or apocryphal but they underscore the fact that we have no factual accounts to go by.

Another group that can shed some light on the happenings of those two decades of military rule are those civilians who served as ministers in that era. None of them – with the sole and single exception of Jama Mohammed Ghalib – wrote anything about that period. It has been said that “History is nothing more than the defamation of the dead” and this more true where dictators are concerned. It is safe now to write anything about that period but if a writer elicits some bitterness the intelligent reader will still be able to see the wood for the trees. Bitterness, like lavish praise, will, without doubt, detract from the quality of the work and should be avoided. In any case, we need this group to give us and the future generations the benefit of their experience.

The Collaborators of the History Makers

This group comprises the higher civil servants such as permanent secretaries, ambassadors, legal experts, advisers and in some instances party functionaries. Here is a class of old fogies who can help us narrow our historical gap. They did not only help the politicians to make history but they also have what many of the politicians lacked: the ability to write and analyze. They are better educated and many have coupled solid experience with their university education and/or professional qualifications. Nor were they constrained by an official secrets act as are British civil servants. Sadly, again, none of them gave us the benefit of his or her experience. Here in the United States we all know that officials give their own versions of history; examples abound: Harry Hopkins, Sorenson, Schlesinger, Kissinger, Brezezinski and so many others all wrote about the historical events they were party witnesses to. In our case, I think Ambassador Ahmed Mohammed Adan (Qaybe) was privy to many negotiations with the Soviet Union and he was our ambassador to Washington, ambassador to the U.N. and U.K. , permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and last Foreign Minister of the Said Bare regime. I feel sure that he has a lot to tell us. I know he can write and he writes beautifully. He is now making history in Hargeisa and I think he should consider it a national duty to write his memoirs before his pen and his memory run dry. I can also think of Ambassador Abdullahi Sa'id Osman who was privy to many occurrences and has that lawyerly ability to write lucidly and put things into their proper perspective. Ambassador Abdullahi Addo (twice a presidential candidate) was our man in Washington at the crucial time we needed the United States to be on our side – a time when the Carter Administration was divided between helping us and throwing us to the wolves. He too can illuminate many of the dark crevices for us.

What Can We Do?

I think we should take our history seriously. It is important. I know we have destroyed whatever records we had, but at least we have the people who know much about methods and means of historical research and how to get the necessary funding for it. Such people can start the nucleus of a Somali Historical Society. I am thinking about Prof. Sa'id Samatar and Dr. Ali Abdurahman Hersi who can no doubt go into some research and chronicle our history. But there must be many other qualified compatriots who will also consider it a national duty to retrieve and save our history. However, I do not know whether there are any Somali archeologists, but I will be surprised if there are any. Archeology is not a field, I suppose, which can attract Somalis. But if there is sufficient funding and a government that will invite and encourage archeological surveys and excavations we should be able to find new discoveries which can put our country on the maps showing the loci of old human civilizations. Alas, it is not likely for many years or decades to have a Somali government which will take due interest in such matters.

Our oral tradition has cost us a great deal, and the writing of the Somali language in 1972 did not transform us after thirty-three years into a truly literate society. We are just beginning to have newspapers and even books in Somali. But still we are oralists to the bone. I remember visiting a friend in the Presidential Quadrangle in Mogadishu in 1987 and I was petrified by the fact that no typewriters were clicking, no papers were shuffled , no one was drafting anything and no files were visible – things which we usually associate with bureaucrats. The desks were clean and clear of pens, pencils, ink etc. and the “bureaucrats” sitting immobile behind them were sipping tea or coffee or else talking on the telephone. They were the most unbureaucratic bureaucrats I have seen in my long public service. The oral tradition has relegated the mechanics of administration to the past and I knew that that was yet another sign that our State was taking a downward spiral.

The other factor which has a fatal effect on writing our history objectively is clanism. Clan sensibilities are avoided at the cost of the facts or else a clear clan bias is exhibited. And there is always the danger of dismissing objective accounts as expressions of clan prejudice. Our educated men and women are, unfortunately, blindly loyal to their respective clans. It seems that their education was not strong enough to liberate them from the shackles of the clan system and to open their minds to the unlimited opportunities we could all have if we widen our horizons and work in unison. It is not possible to write our history without the mention of clans and even when we write a critical essay about a national figure his clansmen and clanswomen will be offended. Clanism continues to cloud our judgment. Those who praise Sayid Mohammed Abdalle Hassan to the sky are blind to his faults; conversely, those who see him as a villain are blind to his virtues. What is interesting is that the division is along clan lines – and so it is with other persons of stature as well. Can we then objectively write our history? My answer is ‘yes'. The History Society can play a role in this by vetting submissions, by seeing to it that claims and counterclaims are fully substantiated and by arranging scholarly debates. I think this is one way of getting around the clan bias. But the Historical Society itself must enjoy a reputation for fairness and scholarly search for the truth.

The warlords are a new and hopefully transient phenomenon. But I think the less said about them the better. Warlords will themselves pass into history soon but it will not be easy for the present generation of Somalis to write objectively about them because objective writing requires some degree of detachment. Similarly, we are unable to write dispassionately about Siad Barre and his regime even though we have welcomed to our midst and accommodated those closest collaborators of his who belong to our respective clans. Time will see to it that passions dissipate and cool heads prevail and future historians will give their generations and the generations that follow them unsanitised accounts of our history.

Finally, one of the main reasons that impelled me to write this article is the failure to respect our time-honored tradition of passing our experience from generation to generation. Nowhere is this failure more apparent than in the contributions some of our young people send to the websites. It is as if these young people have not been told anything at all about how and why things happened. For instance, there are those who contend that the North in its entirety rejected the constitution in the referendum of 1961. I served as the chairman of one of two polling stations in Las Anod (now Sool) at that time and the vote for the constitution was truly overwhelmingly. The constitution was similarly approved by Borama/Zeila (now the Awdal Region) and by what is now Eastern Sanaag . Only the rest of the North overwhelmingly rejected the constitution. The voting laid bare the clan divisions in the North and was revealing of the political alliances that existed then. But the constitutional referendum itself had nothing to do with the union between the North and the South. Furthermore, it was contended by one of the contributors that the late Ian MacLeod, the then Secretary of State for the Colonies wisely advised the Somaliland delegation not to enter into a hasty union with Somalia . I have no doubt that this is true, but the Italians too were giving the same advice to their friends in Somalia.

These machinations were known to the public as a concerted ploy to forestall the union and if Egal and his ministers had heeded the advice of the British Colonial Secretary they would have been stoned at the airport in Hargeisa upon arrival; for such was the mood of the public. The British, perhaps feeling guilty about having neglected the Cinderella of the British Empire (as Somaliland was nicknamed then), had asked earlier to stay on for eight more years in order to build the country and prepare it for the challenges of independence. This was turned down because the British had been perfidious as evidenced by their transfer of the ‘Haud and Reserved Area' to Ethiopia . It is interesting to know that British had asked the Indians about a decade earlier for an extension in India on the same grounds to which Nehru replied, ‘I have never heard of a vegetarian tiger'. I am not talking here about the merits or demerits of secession; that is a different issue altogether, but we have a responsibility to set the record straight for our younger generations.

But, if the generation that led us to independence and those who came after them did not leave any records behind, they did not proffer their experience and wisdom to the rest of us orally either. I therefore sense that there is a gap in the communication between the generations, which I think is wrong and dangerous. I think further that the websites can play a significant role in facilitating the dialogue between generations. The break in communication is partly due to the older generations' feeling that the articles published on the websites are merely idle talk which some of them, incidentally, are. Others may think that it is below their dignity to argue with the age cohorts of their children or their grand children. They could not be more wrong. I recommend that the websites should rise to the challenge and promote a dialogue between the generations.


We welcome the submission of all articles for possible publication on So please email your article today Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of WardheerNews

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Copyright © 2005